Thanks to Speechware for sending me this microphone for an honest review – I’ll be looking at two more of their products very soon. Also, check out the video version of this review below:
Perfection. It’s the enemy of progress, right? I even make that claim in my book, believing that writers should be happy to achieve a usable first draft with Dragon software rather than worrying about whether every little phrase or area of characterisation is perfect. And yet, I find myself guilty of the same seemingly futile pursuit of perfection in one area: dictation accuracy.
I have used dozens of microphones over the years – wired and wireless, DECT and Bluetooth, desktop and headset, analogue and USB. Some have been very good, some atrocious but only a very few have been truly excellent, consistently delivering 98% accuracy or better. That figure becomes even trickier to achieve when it comes to desktop microphones, my favoured method of voice input. This is because, unlike a headset where the microphone capsule is consistently placed close to the corner of your mouth, we tend to turn our heads, sit back in our chairs and forget our positioning when it comes to these sorts of mics.
SpeechWare is a Belgian company with a formidable reputation in the speech recognition industry, although it’s a name many may not recognise. For those in the know, their microphones are consistently regarded among the very best available. When they reached out to me and asked me to review a few of their models, I was intrigued – are they really as good as I have been led to believe? Would I finally be able to achieve the nirvana of perfect (or near-perfect, as I’m a realist after all) accuracy?
The TableMike is an interesting product. The first thing that strikes you when you see the box is that this does not come from the Apple school of design minimalism. This isn’t necessarily a criticism; the design of the product mirrors its packaging – it’s unapologetically utilitarian, designed for ergonomics but also its desired function. The microphone is made up of a heavy base, a highly positionable gooseneck and a USB cable (SpeechWare insists you use the one they supply, which is a generous 2.4m/96” long). One benefit of this design is that the gooseneck is completely detachable, meaning it’s easy to take on your travels – unlike many other desktop microphones.
There are several variants of the TableMike (6 in 1 and 9 in 1 models have features such as the ability to use foot pedals to switch the mic on and off) but I’m reviewing the 3 in 1 model which most users are likely to be interested in. It costs a not-inexpensive $279 (£249), so this is a significant investment for anyone interested. But this is not merely a microphone; although it has the ability to be used for the likes of Skype and podcasting, a button on the base allows you to switch to a long-range mode. This is designed specifically for speech recognition and it’s at this point you realise what your money buys you.
If you own versions of Dragon 13 or 14 and have a North American accent, you can benefit from “Far Field” profiles which can significantly improve your accuracy at distance. In Dragon Professional Individual 15 and Dragon 6 for Mac, these algorithms are automatically included, regardless of your accent, and this is where the long-range mode built into the TableMike shines. There’s some clever processing going on inside that base, including a proprietary “de-clicking” filter that removes things like lip smacks, mouse clicks and keyboard sounds from ever reaching Dragon’s ears. Best of all, it enables you to lean back in your chair and relax your position a little when dictating at a desk, thanks to a handy Automatic Gain Control built in to the mic itself.
There is a very specific way of setting up this microphone, as I found out through experience. Like most middle-aged males, I didn’t bother reading the instructions and proceeded to set the TableMike up in the same way I would any other mic. I noticed straight away that my voice sounded very different from normal microphones through the “green light” long-range mode intended for dictation when I made a test recording in Audacity (the “blue light” mode is for normal use, like VoIP/Skype etc). After performing some initial training, my accuracy was very patchy and I immediately realised something was wrong.
Stumped, I downloaded the PDF manual and realised there is a set of instructions provided by SpeechWare to get this thing working properly. That included going against my normal practice of not using Dragon’s training texts; I used two of the more generic texts available and avoided the fiction ones (as I absolutely didn’t want to train Dragon with anything drastically different from my writing style). SpeechWare also instruct the user not to over-train the software, and I agree. After reading the two supplied texts, I dictated a number of passages of my own work totalling around 2000 words, trained a few phrases in the vocabulary and left it at that.
After saving my profile and restarting Dragon, my results were astonishing – 99.3% accuracy; that’s just two words wrong in roughly every 320. The total amount of training needed to achieve this was approximately two hours and, interestingly, it noticeably improved throughout the training process. That’s something that a lot of microphones struggle with; it’s often a battle to keep accuracy high and stop your profile degrading over time. With over a dozen sessions with the TableMike since that initial training, the accuracy has stayed consistent.
What’s even more interesting about this result is that I think it could be even higher if I had a North American accent. My voice is a strange mishmash of Welsh, Northern English and mangled pronunciation of certain words that I’m sure confuses Dragon on a consistent basis. So one unexpected upside of the TableMike’s accuracy is that it could even benefit those whose accents have resulted in inconsistent results in Dragon in the past.
I achieved these results using Dragon Professional Individual 6.0.7 for the Mac, a product that uses the new “Deep Learning” engine with Far Field algorithms. This is the same engine used in version 15 of the PC product, so the results should be consistent or even better given the greater ability to fine-tune corrections in the Windows software. But one unexpected upside of this microphone is it makes the Mac version far more useful and accurate. If you are using Premium 13, and have a North American accent, it will benefit you too (for everyone else using this version, you can switch to the “normal” setting on the TableMike).
Is this microphone for everyone? Of course not; if you are achieving, say, 98% accuracy already, you may not feel the need to make these marginal gains. That extra 1.3% comes at quite a cost. But the price is the price and the TableMike absolutely does what it says on the tin. If, like me, you make a living from dictation and view good equipment as an investment rather than a cost (and you can afford it, obviously) then spending almost $300 on a microphone may not be an issue especially when the software alone can cost this much.
But, for me at least, the SpeechWare TableMike achieves the near-perfection in accuracy that I crave (especially as I’m not a fan of wearing headsets). It’s the most consistently accurate desktop microphone I’ve ever used and, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. When it comes to truly unleashing the potential of Dragon and simply churning out as many words with as little correction needed as possible, the TableMike is worth every penny.